Architectural Review: City’s famous golden stone needs repair, protection
Story by Ian Debevoise // Photos by Maria Amasanti
SALAMANCA – Like many squares in Spanish cities, the Plaza Mayor is Salamanca’s epicenter, but there’s an element that distinguishes this centerpiece from those found in any other city in the country.
Famously known as the “Golden City,” Salamanca is an architectural masterpiece, built with a certain type of blond sandstone found in the deep quarries in the region of Castile-León. The stone in its pure form is a combination of creams and caramel colors that shine gold in the sunlight. After centuries of oxidation and exposure to the elements, though, the high-iron sandstones are deteriorating, giving the buildings and facades of Salamanca a distinctive reddish patina that dominates the aesthetic of the city today.
Recently, with quarries nearly depleted and fears mounting that their beloved city of gold is vulnerable, historians and scholars have been mobilizing to preserve, restore and protect Salamanca’s “Old City” with the help of the United Nations Educational Scientific and Culture Organization, or UNESCO.
“The buildings you see in downtown Salamanca are some of the oldest buildings in Spain. And part of what makes them so special, besides the history, is the sandstone and granite that have to be used as part of the UNESCO World Heritage Act,” said Dolores Pereira, a professor at the local University of Salamanca who specializes in the stone.
UNESCO created the World Heritage Act in 1972 to preserve and protect the world’s geographical treasures because of their “value to humanity.” Other sites designated by the World Heritage Act include the Great Barrier Reef, Stonehenge and Monticello.
“UNESCO picked Salamanca in 1988 for the World Heritage Act and it helped the city become more famous. The buildings are the most important part of the city and what made UNESCO pick us,” said Carolina Morales, a guide at the Office of Tourism, a branch of Salamanca’s local town hall.
To be included on the list, a site must meet at least one of 10 criteria. The Old City of Salamanca meets three, according to UNESCO: It represents a masterpiece of human creative genius; it reflects human values related to architecture or technology over a span of time for a specific area of the world, and; it is an outstanding example of a type of building that illustrates a significant stage in human history.
Numerous examples of the famous sandstone dominate the landscape of the Old City. The centerpiece of the district, the Plaza Mayor, is built entirely out of Villamayor sandstone. A walk toward the equally famous and still functioning University of Salamanca – the oldest university in Spain and the fourth oldest in the world – reveals building after building of the material, all connected by the narrow cobblestone streets and landscaped plazas that also characterize Salamanca’s landscape.
The New Cathedral of Salamanca, which is one of the tallest buildings in the city, is also made completely from the material. This cathedral is attached to the Old Cathedral of Salamanca, which was built between the 12th and 15th centuries of mostly Villamayor sandstone. Next to the university is the Casa de las Conchas or house of shells – a moniker given for the decorative shells located on the outside. Originally a private house for a wealthy family, it is now used as a library and is another example of a late 15th century building constructed entirely of the prized materials.
These are just examples of some of the most famous attractions, though. Almost all of the buildings – stores, houses, hotels, walls around parks – are built with the sandstone. It is the single most dominant material, in any direction, in any location, throughout the Old City.
Which is why the historians’ worries are so acute. The golden Villamayor sandstone, experts say, is extremely susceptible to erosion caused by wind, rain and time. Without functioning quarries to replace the damaged and diminished stones, the buildings in the old city are increasingly difficult to maintain and preserve both logistically and financially.
“Working around this part of the city, you know about this stone. It is very hard to work with but you have to work with it because of the city’s history,” Raul Perez said in Spanish. Perez is a construction worker currently fixing up a building close to the Casa de las Conchas palace, next to the university and a glance away from the cathedrals.
Like Perez, even the earliest users of the stone knew there were problems with it. It’s porous, which makes it easy to carve – one of the elements that makes Salamanca’s facades so beautiful – but that also means it saturates and deteriorates faster than other stones.
“The Villamayor sandstone did not hold up well especially in the base where there was a lot of water. When wet, you can cut the sandstone with a knife which was one reason it was used in the first place as it was easy to remove and then used for elaborate decorations on the outside of buildings,” said Pereira. “It was however not good for the first 50 or so centimeters of construction.”
As a result, ancient builders had to turn to what’s called “Salamanca sandstone” to form the foundations of many buildings. Though that held up better than Villamayor, it, too, has degraded over time.
“Architects at some point strayed away from sandstone for the base and instead turned to a quarry in Martinamor for a granite nicknamed ‘Piedra Pajarilla’ or ‘little bird stone,’ which has proved to be the best choice of the three,” said Pereira, who is part of a group that is trying to protect that granite, and the quarry it comes from, so that it may be used for future repairs.
Regardless of that effort, the buildings in the Old City must remain Villamayor sandstone for Salamanca to retain its UNESCO status.
“We have to be careful with the stones because we lose a little bit every day and there’s no way to stop that but there’s also no way to replace large amounts of stone,” said Perez, the construction worker.
“The Old City and the university are some of the biggest tourist sites in Spain and certainly a boost for local business,” said Morales, the tourist guide.
Her profession, like so many others in this shining ancient city at the heart of its beautiful province, depends on the fact that people will always come here to witness these magnificent stones.
“Salamanca is called the Golden City because of the sandstone,” said Morales. “We are very proud of the materials we use, so losing the stones would be a disaster for the city.”
Posted on May 18, 2014, in Reporting from Salamanca and tagged architecture, Castile-Leon, construction, Golden city, Plaza Mayor, Salamanca, sandstone, Spain, stones, The New Cathedral, U.N., UNESCO, United Nations, University of Salamanca, villamayor, World Heritage Act. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.